Citizens’ assemblies could lead the way to better democracies

Citizens’ assemblies could lead the way to better democracies

Citizens’ assemblies play an integral role in the development of smart cities, enabling people to become more involved in decision-making processes, writes Paul Budde.

OVER THE YEARS I have regularly mentioned my involvement in smart cities. I have been involved in this for over a decade. It was obviously my background in the application of technology that had drawn me to this concept. And of course there were technology companies such as IBM and Cisco who were key players in this market at the time.

Naturally, developments such as broadband, internet of things (IoT), smart grids, telehealth and teleeducation would all come together in the concept of smart cities.

However, what I very quickly learned from cities such as Amsterdam and Barcelonatwo key pioneers of the smart city concept, was that this was not the way to develop smart cities.

In my smart city consulting work with over a dozen cities in Australia, I promoted the concept of ‘smart people’. Yes, you need the leadership from the cities and you need technology as an enabler, but ultimately it’s about the benefits to the citizens. In order to deliver these benefits, you need to know what these people want, so I fostered the engagement of citizen groups – who had a vested interest in the outcomes – around certain problems or opportunities in cities.

Using smart cities to protect democracy

The connectivity of smart cities can be used as a tool against neoliberalism, bringing people together and reviving the spirit of democracy.

Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t very successful with this approach. In terms of promoting citizen participation in general, I received the enthusiastic support of the councils. However, it failed at follow-up because it was not strategically linked to the decision-making process in the city.

Several years later and as I reflect on it, I see this problem as a reflection of some of the failures that we see in our society as a result of the flaws in our representative democracy; the system fails to enable proper participation of the people.

We have highly professional political systems, more focused on the short-term survival of the party than on what is good for the people in the longer term. Furthermore, we see a highly professional bureaucracy where rules and regulations are more important than the people they are supposed to serve.

The distance between these “elites” and the people has grown significantly over the past 40 years, hence alienation. As a society, we cannot simply outsource decisions on critical societal issues to short-sighted party politicians and impenetrable bureaucracies protected by masses of red tape.

We citizens must show our responsibility, reclaim the political arena and public debate and not just leave it to the politicians in their ivory towers.

One of my interests is philosophy and one of my favorite philosophers is German/American Hannah Arendt, who can be classified as an action-oriented political thinker. She argued – back in 1970 – that our current system of democracy is not working properly, for the reasons I mentioned above.

Democracy, people power and the rise of the smart city

A recent event highlighted the fact that the world’s liberal democracies are faltering.

She argued that democracy must be extended by “deliberative democracy‘. This is closely related to deliberative democracy, where public consultation with citizens is central to democratic processes. Communication between people is essential for a well-functioning society.

What we see happening in many democratic countries now is that they are experimenting with “citizen assemblies“, bring people from all walks of life (not just the elite). Here, proper communication between different people can take place. If we can execute along these paths, we will finally start talking about “smart” in a real way.

For this to work, these assemblies must be:

  • a structural part of the decision-making process;
  • properly installed and supported by governments (federal, state, local);
  • a commitment in advance to follow up the results of the congregations;
  • a group of participating citizens, who are chosen at random (lottery according to Athenian system from 2,500 years ago) but then based on a proper reflection of society (in Athens only free men were allowed to participate);
  • a group that will represent people at the poles as well as people at the center of the issues that will be discussed;
  • participating people, correctly informed by experts from all sides;
  • a group that meets, for example, on a weekend once a month for no more than five or six sessions;
  • a group presenting a report to the government concerned; and
  • followed up by decisions of the political representatives (majority rule) or by referendum.

The most famous civic assembly is that which Ireland used for its debate on abortion and gay marriage. This process has been so successful that citizen assemblies are now springing up all over the country. France launched a similar concept to discuss climate change issues, after Yellow Vests revolt, but it struggles with a proper follow-up. One of the first citizens’ assemblies was established in German-speaking part of Belgium.

Back to smart cities, 2016, a new local government in Barcelona launched the process of citizens’ assemblies because it was dissatisfied with the technocratic approach of its smart city policy. This has resulted in significant changes to its smart city policy, which is now people-centric rather than technology-centric. It also addresses issues far beyond technology – public housing was one of the first issues the congregation addressed.

How Australia can learn from Scandinavian countries

It is interesting to compare the major economic models in the Western world: the Anglo-Saxon model, the Rhineland model and the Scandinavian model.

Citizens’ assemblies work particularly well in local government.

An interesting phenomenon in these “pluriform” congregations is that initially the people at the poles of the issue are the loudest but the majority of the people tend to end up more in the center.

We must improve our democratic systems and citizens’ assemblies must become an integral part of our political decision-making process if we are to ensure that democracy will continue to deliver nationally good outcomes for all. Voting only once every four years clearly does not provide the democracy we need to address the complex problems we face as a society.

Despite the current negative perception of social media – if properly set up and used – it can also be a potential additional tool for increasing public participation. Video streaming of the citizens’ assembly meetings contributes to more transparency and public buy-in.

Hannah Arendt warned (1970) about two-party systems because they can become so entrenched – as we see in the US – that the government, due to polarization, cannot deal with the complex problems it faces. Democracy crumbles and subsequent polarization creates a serious crisis of democracy.

While I have tried to engage citizens in my smart city projects, I now realize that much more serious work is needed to do this properly. We need structurally supported citizens’ assemblies. We must ensure that our democracies are augmented with deliberative democracy, where citizens are involved in the decision-making processes and we must ensure that proper processes are in place to follow up on the results.

As far as I know, the concept does not yet exist in any significant format in Australia. We can learn from the various projects going on in Europe. Hannah Arendt would argue that it is up to us – and our responsibility as citizens – to take action to make this happen.

Paul Budde is an independent columnist in Australia and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consulting organization. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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